Manhattan Project #19 Heart-to-Heart with Doris

(in which Berman gets a job in New England and probes deep questions with his friend from the Old Town smoke shop whose name turns out to be Doris)
Chapter Eight

And that’s how I ended up working in Maine. Do I regret losing a job at a much bigger station in a way bigger city? Sure, it’s a pretty big blow to the old ego any time you lose your job, and this was the first time it ever happened to me. So, yeh, that hurt a lot. We had a pretty big audience out there, more than a million people, I’d say, which is about as many people as there are in the entire state of Maine. I still want to do stories that matter, but it’s a little disappointing knowing that I won’t reach nearly as many viewers now. So that’s a negative.

Jane found a job right away, just like she predicted. But there are times when she gets a little depressed being so far from her family. The weather can be a downer, too, too cold in the winter and too many black flies and mosquitoes in the summer.

But at least I’m still working, and the people I work with are professionals. Most of them actually came here from somewhere else, anyway, so they have no reason to keep me at arm’s distance, like some of the real Mainers seem to do. And even the natives seem pretty sophisticated about the news business; they started coming up to me at the mall and in the grocery store a couple of weeks after Fred put me on the air.

To tell you the truth, I always dreamed of living in New England, especially Maine. Yeh, I see that look on your face. You probably think I’m just saying that to minimize the embarrassment of being forced here by losing my mind on live TV. Well, I would say two things about that: first, I’m still not sure I did flip out that day. You know, I always walked around telling people I got into the news business to be a truth teller, to call it like it is, so people would know what they needed to know about stuff that might affect their lives. And what I said that day was, in my opinion, the truth. If you think about Lenhard’s reaction, and the reaction of everybody in the control room that day, you might notice that no one ever disagreed with what I said, they just got pissed about the fact that I said it, that I blew the cover off the façade every station puts up so people will pick them to watch. From what I hear, telling the truth didn’t hurt my old station. In fact, the night after I left they had the biggest ratings for the eleven o’clock news they’d ever had. And they’re still running higher than the other two stations, which wasn’t a guaranteed thing at that time of night the whole time I was there.

Now, I’m not saying it was the fact that someone finally told the truth on TV that made the difference. It might just be people tuning in just in case someone else melts down. What I call the blooper factor. I sometimes get the impression people would rather see you screw up than just do the job right and get it over with. But it could be the truth. I’m sure Autry Domain, the asshole consultant, had an explanation, but no one’s bothered to let me know what it was, if he did. And whatever he said, if he said anything, would somehow get around to taking credit for any jump in the ratings. Doesn’t really matter.

I work here now, and I’m okay with that. In fact, if I hadn’t ended up here I never would have met my friend by the smoke shop. I finally ran into him a couple of months after I made the connection between inventions and death. It was a weekend. He was on the same bench and still smoking. I parked my car and walked over to him. This time he recognized me right away.

“Hey, stranger, haven’t seen you for a while.” He took a drag on his cigarette, held it in for a couple seconds and exhaled very slowly. He was smiling. The smoke sort of wrapped around his face and drifted upward, before it dissipated in the air.

“Yeh, it has been a while,” I said. “I actually have some thoughts to run by you. In fact, I put some stuff together a while ago, but I never seem to run into you when I’m at the white hot point of inspiration.”

He smiled again and took another drag, held it, and let it out.
“That’s probably true. I don’t keep a real regular schedule. I work just enough to pay the rent and for a couple of classes. In between those, I hang out, and read, and mostly think about stuff.”

I thought it would be useful if I knew a little more about him, so we could be in touch on something more than a hit-or-miss basis. So I asked some personal questions.

“So where do you hang out? I’ve seen you walking back into town. Is that where your apartment is?”

He held up his hand to put the brakes on the conversation.

“Whoa, there, amigo. We’re getting’ into some confidential territory there. For my own reasons, I may not want the whole wide world to know exactly where I am at any given moment.”

I backed off, a little.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to pry. But if we’re going to have these in-depth conversations, I’d like to feel like I know you a little bit better. How about we start with this: my name’s Jed Berman, I anchor the news for WSME in Bangor. What’s your name and what do you do?”

I smiled as I said it, hoping I could thaw him out, at least a little. But that wasn’t going to be easy.

“Well,” he started out, speaking slowly, “Well, you can call me Doris. And let’s say my occupation is part legal and part should-be-legal.”

“What the hell does that mean?” I asked, a little exasperated. I still considered this guy someone I could talk to about real stuff, but he worked real hard to be Yoda-like, just vague and enigmatic.

He responded in that same slow delivery.
“Not lookin’ to give you a hard time, my friend—Jed—but we all have our ways. And these are mine. As for my name, I call myself Doris after the historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin. I really like her take on the subject, especially that book she wrote about Lincoln and his cabinet. I guess you could say she’s my historian hero, at the moment.”

He paused to suck in some smoke and release it. I told myself there’s no sense trying to rush this guy, that’s just the way he is. He finally went on.
“I knew you did the news before you told me. I don’t have a TV at my place, but I catch the news sometimes when I’m in a bar. Can’t say I have a high regard for your profession. Not much thoughtfulness in what you do, as far as I can see. Which is why I’m still amazed by the quest you told me you’re on. But, hey, to each his own, right? I’m not judging anyone.”

“As for my work, I consider my studies work. I guess you could say I’m a professional student. I mean, hell, what else would you call someone who spent this many years hacking away at that infinite body of knowledge in history and philosophy? That’s part of it. The other part, the should-be-legal part, provides the cash so I can dig into the first part.”

Just the way he said that made me a little nervous; I wished I hadn’t pushed him on it, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the other part.

“To be absolutely honest with you, I don’t tell a lot of people what I do for the other part, because most of them couldn’t handle it. But considering what I think I know about you, I’m gonna’ take a chance. And this is no big thing, as far as I’m concerned, although it might give Nancy Reagan a terminal stroke. I sell a little pot.”

He looked over at me to see how I was taking this. I’ve already admitted I had my fun with grass in college, and don’t really see why people get so worked up about it, but those aren’t thoughts you can share around in the community when you’re doing the news. In the Midwest, I kept getting invited to be the speaker for D.A.R.E. graduations—you know, that program they do in elementary and middle schools to scare the wits out of kids so they won’t try drugs or alcohol. My station obviously wanted us out there doing those things so we’d all look like upstanding citizens. So I did it.

And I usually told stories about some of the people I’d seen when we rode along on drug busts, and how so many of them had managed to ruin their lives at pretty early ages, all because they got started doing drugs. I had one really sad one about a kid from Chicago who showed up in a crack house in our community when we followed the cops in with our cameras. It really was pathetic. Someone had tipped off the house that the cops were coming, and everyone took off. All we saw when we got there was dried up pots and pans on the stove, boxes of half eaten pizza, and a table strewn with bottle caps and little pieces of Kleenex with drops of blood on them.

Then they found the kid, curled up under a bed with a totally stained mattress. He was so fucked up he didn’t even know enough to run, or maybe couldn’t. The cops dragged him out and I never did hear what happened to him, but I always assumed they threw the book at him.

That’s what I told the D.A.R.E. kids about, and sometimes they’d want to ask questions when I was finished, but not really about the drug thing. Like so many people out there in TV land, they wanted to know about doing the news, what my co-anchor was like, why did I want to be in the news business. And those questions were fine. But the whole time I was standing there, I worried that one of those sharp little characters was going to pop the big question—Mr. Berman, did you ever use drugs? And I wasn’t sure how I’d answer that. Thank God it never came up, although if it had, I probably would have lied and said no. Some truth teller, huh?

Anyway, I just shrugged and tried to look noncommittal when my friend told me about his part-time job.
“That’s okay with me. It’s not my job to haul you in. If I could be honest about it, I’d tell people I think grass should be legalized. Seems to me it’s no worse than booze. In fact, if I had to choose between a room full of drunks and a room full of stoners, I’d take the stoners any day in the week.”

My friend—Doris, that is—smiled again and relaxed back into his slouching position on the bench.
“Good. We got that out of the way. So, why did you come looking for me today?”
“I’m glad you asked,” I said, and then I told him all the stuff I’d put together about the connection between inventions and killing. I went on for about five minutes and was just finishing up with my mom’s nuclear nightmare when he stopped me.

“We’re getting into this pretty deep, Jed,” he said. “I can’t really think it through sitting here. What say we retire to Johnny’s Restaurant downtown, grab a little food and a beer, and really chew it over?”

A few minutes later we both had a burger and fries in front of us, and I launched into the rest of my report. Doris didn’t interrupt me again; he sat there listening and carefully eating his burger. He seemed to savor every bite. I kept rattling on, and wound up with my sweeping conclusion that the real problem was the inventions and their inventors. If we could just stop them from creating the weapons, I told him, we might actually make some progress on ending the killing.

He sat there silently for a long moment after I finished. Then he scratched his head a couple of times, and murmured “Hmmmmm.” Finally, he was ready to speak.
“Very interesting, Jed. Makes logical sense, it all seems to fit together. But I think we’ve got a couple of problems to deal with.”
He leaned both arms on the table and looked directly into my eyes.
“Such as?” I asked him.
“Well, for one thing, I think your solution, if it’s correct, may come just a few millennia too late to hold much promise. It’d be okay if you figured this out before anyone ever learned how to use a weapon to kill somebody. But we’re way past that point, don’t you think? I mean, we can’t uninvent all that stuff now, can we? And even if we could, I’m not sure that would bring peace to humanity.”

I was a little disappointed to hear him dismiss what I thought was a pretty promising bit of thinking about all of this, but I was also curious to know where he was going with his reaction. So I waited for him to continue.

“And I don’t mean to put down all of your hard work, but I wonder if we’ve really identified the culprits here. Think about it. You want to blame the inventors for coming up with devices that kill people; hell, you’re ready to hang Einstein, for cryin’ out loud. But what about this question: Why did the inventors come up with this stuff? What was their plan? Do you think they figured they could single-handedly take over a village or a city or a region or a country with an iron stirrup or a nuclear bomb? I think maybe we need to get behind the inventor and figure out why they even put their creative genius to work coming up with these things.”

He looked down for a moment, then back up at me and asked, “So what do you think?”

I wasn’t sure what I thought. I really wanted to believe I had found the source of the killing. I hadn’t come with answers to his new questions.

“I don’t know. What are you getting at?”
“Well, it seems to me that the thing isn’t responsible for being invented, any more than you and I are responsible for being born. Seems like there’s another hand at work here.”

I cut him off right there.
“You’re not going to blame this on God or something, are you?”
“Hell, no. I’m not necessarily interested in blaming anybody. But I think it might be possible to think about who bears most of the responsibility for getting these violent tools invented. Who would you say it might be, or do you still think it started with the creators?”

I wasn’t quite getting it, so I deflected the question.
“Hey, you’re the historian here. What do you think?”

“I’m not really sure, but if I had to guess right now I’d be looking for somebody in a position to encourage a craftsman or whatever to apply his skills to making a weapon instead of whatever else he usually made. I’m not a sociologist, but doesn’t somebody tend to get powerful in most societies, powerful enough to influence inventors to come up with the tools or weapons that will help them hold onto or even increase their power?”

“Think about the Huns. Did you come across any speculation in the stuff you read about them that said they didn’t really become a force to be reckoned with until somebody rose up who could organize them and lead them into battle? What if those guys, wherever and whenever they show up, are the ones we should be looking at, guys in a position to order up the bows and arrows and gunpowder and nuclear bombs? What if they basically demanded the invention of weapons and taught people how to use them against each other? I mean, does it make any sense that some ordinary schmuck who just happens to be kind of bright and creative would spend his time coming up with stuff to hurt people with? I wonder if it isn’t those other guys who are the problem here.”

Now it was my turn to be silent. I was reluctant to let go of my theory, but I had to admit his probably made more sense. It seemed like maybe we’d gone as far as we could on this go round.

“You may be right,” I finally told him. “I think I need to do some more research.”
“Have at it, Jed. I’ll spend some more time on it, too. In the meantime, I better get going.”
I couldn’t imagine where he needed to be at just that minute, but I didn’t try to keep him there.
“Okay, I should probably go, too. I’ll see you around.”

He tossed a five on the table, stood up and shuffled out the door.

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